by Jack Beglin
ArtUniverse is an international arts agency created in 2006 in Great Britain with the mission:
To develop transnational cultural collaboration and exchange between arts and culture workers, to strengthen international cultural links through artistic expression and to assist artists in the development of projects of a high professional level and significant artistic and sociocultural value.
In order to facilitate and realise its vision, Arts Universe are spearheading, IUGTE – the International University “Global Theatre Experience.” IUGTE was founded in 2000 with the purpose of exploring the bridge between world theatre traditions and contemporary performance. I had the opportunity to participate in IUGTE’s Movement: Directing and Teaching Lab with Sergei and Gennady Ostrenko at The Retzhof Educational Institute, Lebnitz, Austria, August 22 – 28th, 2017.
Sergei Ostrenko, is a Russian director, choreographer, teacher and the head of IUGTE’s Russian Theatre Department. His professional career started in 1976, after graduating from the Academy of Arts as a stage designer. He then continued his education as an actor and then later as a director. Sergei’s biography reads like an alchemist’s cookbook for the performer’s craft. Conducting international, interdisciplinary and cross cultural research since 1988, Sergei has traversed a kaleidoscope of embodied practice to arrive at the formation of his unique approach – the Ostrenko Method, which “guides the performers through the development of a physical culture, a form of self exploration that provides a fully alive, fresh presence on stage and originates a spontaneous blossom in each artist.”
Gennady Ostrenko, is a choreographer, set designer, theatre artist, costume designer, educator and painter, from Ukraine. Like his brother’s biography, Gennady’s resume reads like an encyclopaedia for the performing and scenic arts. Practicing Tai Chi Quan since 1990, Gennady’s approach to performer training combines meditative and transcendental techniques with modern methods of embodiment such as Butoh dance and contact improvisation. For Gennady, he sees the future of performing arts practice as rooted in contact improvisation:
One touch with a partner can give you the whole history of your partner’s life and his world, it is so full of emotional content…working with a partner, feeling him and communicating with him, even without words… Words could not pass the information about you, your life and your emotions as it does a dance.
Assisting the Ostrenko Brother’s is Veronika Zhuk, a Master of Arts Student in Responsible Management of ICRM at Steinbeis University, Berlin. She is administrator and translator to the Ostrenko Brothers.
My first encounter with Sergei and Gennady takes place in Seminar Room three of The Retzhof Educational Institute; a fifteenth century refurbished castle where the melodic sound of statue chiseling and the humid heat of the Austrian summer envelope a central courtyard of fountains overlooked by open eyed balconies.
As Sergie’s Russian sentences braid themselves amongst Veronika’s English translations, I look around the circle at a cast of multi cultural actors and dancers. India, North America, Germany, Poland, England, Iceland, Italy and Ireland all represented. A United Nations of artists united trough the kinaesthetic sense and the embodiment of the ever present moment. I am in a country where words dissolve and the imagination speaks through the body.
The research at the movement lab consisted of three phases scheduled between Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. A typical working day was scheduled accordingly;
7 – 8: 00: Warm up in nature
8 – 9:00: Breakfast
10 – 12: 00: Practical Training
12 – 13:00: Lunch
13 – 14: 00: Break
14 – 18:00: Practical Training
18 – 19: 00: Dinner
19 – 19: 30: Break
19: 30 – 21: 00: Creative Diary
Scheduling the program in this way struck a healthy balance between intensive movement exploration, eating, reflecting and socialising. The work consisted of three passes:
- Warm up in Nature: an introduction to Meyerhold’s biomechanics, a pre – expressive training to prepare the body-mind for performance. Flowing through the pendulum-like swinging movements and the iconic etudes, such as shooting from the bow and throwing a stone, I felt as if I was in a Soviet Mural. I mimed the ergonomic movements of hammering a train spike into the railroad and taking cover from falling derby on the factory floor.
- Practical Training: ensemble building through contact improvisation techniques. With a partner, eyes closed and then open, we led and followed one another in space through the kinsathetic sense. Eventually the difference between the leader and the follower dissolved as the duos dialogues became articulate in their corporal conversations. Sergei and Gennady would then encourage us to build simple group choreographies based on pictures of classical Renaissance art. These moving tableaux were enriched by embodying them through the imagination and presented to audience members accompanied by epic music from Segie’s boom box, transforming them into moving statues of the psyche, tapping into a collective world of archetypes that told the hopes and fears of man in moving pictures. Practical training also involved approaches to composition, physical scores and text.
- Creative Diary: an introduction to devising and compositional work. Segie would set us simple creative tasks for us to devise in groups. This was an opportunity for us to incorporate the devising structures that we learned during the practical training into the making of a short sketch. Here we learned how to structure a sequence of actions to tell a story. We learned that the more limited the creative choices the more freedom there was to explore their possibilities. We also came to the conclusion that it is always better to devise material and place it in real time and space first rather than talking about an abstract ‘concept’ or ‘vision’ . Any performer devising a performance will be familiar with the torturous loop of never-ending conversation that ensues when an ensemble come together to create a performance. Sergie’s method bypasses the rational mind in favour for a pragmatic and embodied approach to devising. In this way, performers produce material first and reflect upon their experience afterwards.
Gennady’s sentiments, “words could not pass the information about you, your life and your emotions as it does a dance,” ring true as I finish our last creative session and make my way back to my hotel room 205. I insert my key into the key hole as I look up at a picture of Sigmund Freud, as the Retzhof Castle Hotel is lined with portraits of famous artists, activist and academics. I open the door and walk into my room. I ask myself what would Carl Jung say about this experience? The answer was on the tip of my tough and hovered somewhere between a sound and a gesture. I recall a moment in the practical training when we were creating ensemble choreographies through classical pictures of Renaissance art. I am working with a talented Indian actress, Kiran, and Gennady. Transitioning from one image to the other, as I move from a depiction of Jesus in Mary’s arms, to the depiction of Pan chasing a naked woman, I clock eyes with Kiran. Our eye contact is intense. The epic music culminates as we exercise our imagination through the given circumstances. A single tear drops from her eye. We transition into the next image; Jesus is giving Judgment over a Roman soldier and a Priest. Gennady as the Roman soldier holds in his hand an upside-down baby while as a Priest, I look up with clasped hands at Kiran, playing Jesus. She is sitting on a thrown wearing an orange garb holding her fingers in a Mudra. Tears are now streaming down her face.
Later in conversation with Kiran, she said that this devising work struck a chord in her heart that she could not understand. The pictures, the physicality, the music and the imagination taped into a part of her that that she was otherwise unaware of. I’m sure Jung would be able to comment on this experience.
For me, this was the important moment in the program. These moving tableaux became embodied statues of the psyche that connected us to a collective unconscious. A world of archetypes animated by theatrical performance.
ArtUniverse, IUGTE and the Ostrenko brothers are doing a brave thing. In a world of increasing materialism they are investing in the technologies of the imagination and the human heart. They are connecting international dancers, actors and live performers through the universal language of the moving body. Through their work “originates a spontaneous blossom in each artist.”